Within the first week of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, he tackled the Vietnam War. This kind of bravery and thoughtful forwardness is routinely shown in Morgan Neville's documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor. Fred Rogers is far from having a punk aesthetic and yet he routinely ended up pushing against the standard quo, particularly on how society thought we should treat children.
Peppered throughout the archive footage from his many years on TV, we see that the show slyly and sometimes very directly took on the issues of the day. Neville is wise in what he chooses to highlight as many of the segments have ties to today's world. Early on we see King Friday XIII, the leader of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, build a wall around his kingdom because he fears change. It doesn't take much effort to tie that to Trump's decrees for a wall at the Mexican Border. It is a stirring reminder that Mr. Rogers and his show were more than just noise to keep children occupied. He regularly expresses his disdain for children's programming in the heyday of Saturday morning cartoons such as Transformers.
Neville brilliantly traces Fred Rogers' unique, steady approach to trying to share decency, kindness, and love to people of all ages. The film builds to Rogers's 1969 testimony in front of the Senate that helped to save Public Broadcasting. It is a powerful moment that shows in real-time the power of his philosophy of treating children as complex beings. The film opens with a line from Rogers stating that he hopes to help children "through the modulations of life." This explains why the show regularly addressed topics like divorce, anger, death, war and the assassination of Robert Kennedy. He felt that we had to talk to children about harsh truths rather than sugar coat or protect them from these elements of life.
Neville smartly also shows the personal struggles of Fred Rogers, keeping him from appearing too saintly. He was clearly a man who was filled with doubt about if he was really making an impact. One of his sons describes how hard it was growing up with "the second Christ as a father." The relentless pursuit of preaching the message of Christ drove him. Rogers was an ordained minister but saw the power in television. His message of loving thyself and thy neighbor represents the core of Christianity at its best and yet I never knew of his religious beliefs as a child. One wishes Neville would have explored this element a bit more as too often the film feels like a highlight reel of his amazing kindness and openness rather than a 360-degree exploration of the man.
Won't You Be My Neighbor? is a joy to watch. Hearing about an ordained minister with a particular focus on children may make your jaded mind raise an eyebrow but the film proves that there are great people in the world who truly want to accept all people with love and decency. The continuous examples the film pulls from archival footage begins to overwhelm the viewer. If Neville avoids a deeper dive into the personal turmoil of Fred Rogers, it is in service of painting an inspiring example of the power of tolerance.